Continuing innovation at Group Rhodes

8 min read

​On the wall of the boardroom at the company’s headquarters is a patent grant dating from 1859 for “improvement to steam hammer” – Joseph Rhodes, as the company then was, went on to make steam hammers from 1862. That spirit of innovation dating from the first industrial revolution continues to this day at the 100-employee, £10 million turnover company. Importantly so. For, as Mark Ridgway, OBE DL (deputy lieutenant), chairman and CEO of Group Rhodes says, as an SME, the company must differentiate itself by offering something that customers can’t get elsewhere; or by offering a 100%-fit, customer-tailored solution versus others’ standard offerings. And there are patentable product developments in the press area ongoing, while fourth industrial revolution Industry 4.0-style offerings are also part of its strategy.

Since the turn of this century, a group of 18 sister companies was ultimately assembled before a more difficult time arrived in 2016 and subsequent reorganisation. That delivered the Group Rhodes structure as it now is, namely the three divisions of Rhodes Interform, Craven Fawcett and Hallamshire Engineering that sit below Group Rhodes as the parent company.

The design, manufacture and supply of a range of engineered, semi-standard capital equipment is the group’s territory, with press and metalforming equipment sitting within Rhodes Interform. That activity takes in hot and cold forming equipment for metals and composites, while the operation is internationally recognised as a specialist in superplastic forming/diffusion bonding (SPF/DB) for both the aerospace and automotive industries – it is one of just three such companies globally. This process sees titanium parts formed at 1,000 °C and offers more cost-effective manufacture and lighter components, with typical savings of 30% in cost and 20% in weight achievable. Engine fan blades, outer guide vanes, exhaust structures, canard wings, fuselage panels and wing leading edges are parts that benefit.

Hallamshire specialises in bulk material handling equipment for the quarrying, mining and recycling industry, and Craven Fawcett focuses on equipment for the clay-handling industry, for quarrying, mining and ceramics. Across a broad spectrum of standard machinery, engineered customer solutions are Group Rhodes’ forte.

As part of the recent period of change, the company exited the defence market for its machine tools, driven by issues of instability in overseas markets plus related banking support difficulties as a result of a tightening of global compliance regulations.

Since the restructure, an additional business, Crescent Machinery, has joined Rhodes Interform, focusing on servicing both machine tools and health and safety equipment necessary to support companies’ related accreditation.

Off the back of the supply of capital plant supply, some 50% of group turnover today is generated via services and spares, and service/aftermarket activities figure large in strategy discussions, the chairman and CEO underlines, although new capital products are required to support these, of course, he adds.


So, having lost almost 60 jobs in the 2016 restructure, this move to new premises, officially marked with an event in July attended by 200-odd customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, has seen the company take on 21 new personnel. And they will be working in brighter, more modern and comfortable surroundings supplemented also with some new or updated machinery on the shopfloor. There have been a raft of organisation/administrative changes to modernise the company, as well, such as: an integrated IT system, with real-time mapping of production flows a target; bringing commercial departments, including product development, together on a single site, in one large area; bringing service engineers together, supporting knowledge ‘cross-pollination’ and flexibility; plus all staff now benefit from the same pension, sickness and other terms and conditions, with an aligning of shopfloor and office hours of work introduced.

Also instituted as part of a “refresh of the business right across the board” are better communications via regular company away-days and a newsletter. Group Rhodes’ operation and structure are clearly very different, even if the core products remain fundamentally the same.

Focusing on Rhodes Interform activities, chairman and CEO Ridgway says that it has a “huge product range” but that recent successes have been with superplastic forming/diffusion bonding technology, with China and the UK cited as countries where good business is being won. Indeed, the company has just earned a patent relating to the control of atmospheric conditions within the die during forming, delivering higher accuracy, reducing scrappage and making its process more competitive.

Aerospace has been a major area for press sales over the past 10 years, probably 75% of the business, says technical director Peter Anderton, with this centred around SPF/DB presses. But he sees a demand for composite presses re-appearing, a market that the company served in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s but which suddenly stopped around ‘89/’90, meaning that Group Rhodes hadn’t again made a composites press till last year, in fact. “Everyone has gone down the autoclave route, saying that presses are expensive, cumbersome and difficult to maintain,” he says. “But about three years back, the thinking changed. Autoclaves weren’t as good as people had thought. Not quite as efficient, you can’t get the definition of the part, due to pressures of only up to 3 bar – with a press you can apply whatever you want. So, we can form more intricate parts with better definition and people are now saying, because of the advances in tool design, that presses are more efficient. And in the last 12 months, we have seen a number of enquiries.” Large parts can be accommodated, too – a current enquiry is for helicopter rotor blades that require a 10 by 1.5 m hot platen.

Anderton sees the prospect of good business in this area, saying: “I think that over the next 10 years this area is going to expand rapidly.” And Ridgway underlines the drive for lightweighting, such as with new fan blades. Indeed, the company is currently looking at designing a well-priced standard machine to position itself ready to capitalise on this growth. Aerospace is seen a better prospect than automotive, although that first composites press made in years was for automotive use, in fact.

Rhodes Interform installed a modern composite press line at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), Sheffield City region (read more here). Although not named, a company that will be making use of this will be McLaren, the company having set up its McLaren Composites Technology Centre (MCTC) close to the AMRC. Here the super-car and F1 specialist is to innovate the process for making the ultra-lightweight and strong carbon fibre tubs that are at the heart of its sportscars and supercars.

The state-of-the-art facility, comprising of a 10,000 kN hydraulic press with 6-axis loading, high pressure resin transfer moulding (RTM), twin die transfer tables, thermal fluid heating system and die splitter, is capable of a wide range of composite forming, including open and closed moulding, RTM, prepreg, compression moulding and thermoplastics (more:

That machine development actually flows from the company’s involvement in the ‘Lightweighting Excellence Programme’ ( that kicked off in late 2015. Funded under the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative and now concluded, it involved three automotive companies – Bentley Motors, Emerald Automotive LLC and Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK).

In fact, Rhodes Interform’s involvement was linked with a fourth auto firm, Caparo Advanced Composites, but that firm went out of business and the press development was then taken further with the AMRC.

Says Ridgway: “We are seeing changes in the market places, but there is huge opportunity in presses, as with other machine tools, for new technology. Condition monitoring is something we are looking very closely at;

we are very interested in the Siemens MindSphere platform. The company was here at the recent official opening of our new plant and we have been to the company’s digital factory. But that technology can be applied right across the group, in fact. We should, in time, be able to detect whether a shaft or gear is wearing from the different frequencies that that wear pattern will generate.” This builds on existing local machine monitoring capabilities, it should be said.

Depending on business area, this monitoring capability has slightly different application. For the Craven Fawcett machinery operating in a high-wear environment, avoiding unplanned downtime is critical. In the aerospace industry and for presses, it would be about ensuring that the equipment is operating at the optimum all the time and that cycle times are as fast as possible. But in this Industry 4.0 area, Ridgway is very keen to emphasise that any development must serve a practical customer need.

Operations director James Gascoigne suggests that Craven Fawcett is the likely first target, with vibration and temperature monitoring in support of predictive failure the focus, but adds that SPF/DB presses already see many process elements monitored at a local level – platen temperature, heat dissipation, water flow, pressure. Adds technical director Anderton: “Right now we are just putting that up onto a screen, an HMI, so, first-level monitoring. What we are talking about now is doing that in more detail, sending signals to people, to laptops or mobiles. And with the level of technology now, we can monitor more – flow rates in hydraulic pumps, temperatures and vibrations of pumps, for example.”

Initially it will be about simple condition monitoring, with real-time information for operators or maintenance engineers supplied regarding process parameter, but into the future, once lots of data has been collected and can be analysed and linked to certain failure modes, then predictive capability comes more into the picture, Gascoigne adds.

Ridgway says the company is looking at this as three phases/elements. The first is adopting the underpinning operating system, MindSphere, linked to capturing data at source; the second is understanding what captured data means in a specific customer/application context; and the third is sensible presentation of information to individuals through, for example, apps or HMIs. “We are dealing with each of these in three phases and using three companies to help us in each of those areas.” Revenue-generating customer services and reduced spares stockholding are anticipated outcomes.

Innovation in products and services, as has been Group Rhodes’ history, therefore continues. “We have two or three novel products coming through in association with customers in the aerospace and automotive sectors that, we hope, will provide us with products for the future,” Group Rhodes’ head reveals, highlighting again the customer-led nature of its development activities.

Successfully spanning all four industrial revolutions there can be few such companies in the UK, so this latest reorganisation, move/site consolidation and subsequent July event carry in them more significance than a casual first glance might reveal.

Extended article from here

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An influential life in business and engineering

Joseph Rhodes, who established the original company in 1824, went on to become mayor of Wakefield. Today’s company is headed by a man who similarly has involved himself in wider duties.

Group Rhodes’ chairman and CEO Mark Ridgway is a director and past president of the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA), the trade association for companies operating in the UK’s engineering-based manufacturing sector and is a council member of the Metalforming Machinery Manufacturers’ Association (MMMA). In 2015, he was awarded the title of Regional Manufacturing Champion (NE) by the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) and listed in the Manufacturers UK Top 100.

Mark Ridgawy sits on UKTI’s Aerospace Growth Partnership (International sub-group), having previously sat on the Advanced Engineering Sector Advisory Board covering the UK aerospace, automotive and engineering sectors. In 2010, as interim chair of the board, he represented the sector during the World Trade Fair in China, and in 2011 he led UKTI’s Aerospace Mission to India. In 2012 Group Rhodes top man accepted an invitation to sit on the BIS Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) investment board, and subsequently joined the WMLCR Investment Board in 2015. He was appointed UKTI's Advanced Engineering Sector Champion for the London Olympic Games.

On a local and regional level Mark Ridgway has chaired the Wakefield Enterprise Partnership and represented manufacturing businesses on the main board of the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for over five years, chairing its Employer Ownership of Skills Board from 2013-2017. He is currently heavily engaged with EURIS, a body that seeks to deliver a positive outcome for the manufacturing sector, and the people it employs, from the Brexit process.

He was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2011 for Services to Industry and in 2012 was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant to the West Yorkshire Lieutenancy. He holds an MSc in Manufacturing Leadership from Leeds University Business School and Honorary Doctorates from Sheffield Hallam University and Leeds Beckett University.

On a personal level, Mark Ridgway is proud to have been appointed both a “Yorkshire Patron” and Patron of a local brain injuries charity, Move Ahead. He is also president of the Wakefield Sea Cadets. He ran internationally as a student and is a qualified Sky Diver and Open Water Diver.

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Other news in brief, with links to full online articles

* Atkin Automation, part of Group Rhodes, has won a six-figure contract with a major UK supplier of construction fastenings - read more here.

* Group Rhodes, through its Rhodes Interform business, has announced a new working partnership with the German manufacturer Dr. Hochstrate Maschinenbau GmbH - read more here.

* Wakefield-based manufacturer Group Rhodes is celebrating the dedication of a number of its staff, after introducing a 10-year long service award. Twenty-four employees were presented with a certificate and gift for achieving 10 years+ long service, with one employee, Gwyn Jones receiving a reward for achieving a staggering 50 years of service. Read more here.

First published in Machinery September 2018